It’s a phenomenon that cropped up shortly after the terror attacks, and the New York Times looks at how it has played out in some communities:
When Betsy Wiggins opened her front door and saw the woman in a full black face veil coming up her flower-lined walkway, she wondered if she had done the right thing.
It was 11 days after 9/11, and Mrs. Wiggins, a speech pathologist and the wife of a Methodist minister in Syracuse, had called the local mosque and invited a Muslim woman she did not know over for coffee.
She and the Muslim woman, Danya Wellmon, a medical lab technician, sat in the Wigginses’ breakfast nook for hours and talked about their faith, their careers, their children — and their mutual despair over the terrorist attacks. They bonded that day, and decided that they should start a broader discussion. As a next step, Ms. Wellmon invited nine Muslim women, and Ms. Wiggins invited nine others (Christians, Jews, one Buddhist and an Ismaili Muslim) to join them for a potluck dinner by the big stone fireplace in the living room.
In Syracuse, as in countless other communities, 9/11 set off a phenomenon that may seem counterintuitive in an era of increasingly vocal Islamophobia. A terrorist attack that provoked widespread distrust and hostility toward Muslims also brought Muslims in from the margins of American religious life — into living rooms, churches, synagogues and offices where they had never set foot before.
American Christians and Jews reached out to better understand Islam and — they will admit — to find out firsthand whether the Muslims in their midst were friends or foes. Muslims also reached out, newly conscious of their insularity, aware of the suspicions of their neighbors, determined that the ambassadors of Islam should not be the terrorists.
“Before 9/11 we were somewhat timid,” said Saad Sahraoui, president of the Islamic Society of Central New York, the largest mosque in Syracuse, when the attacks occurred in 2001. “We just kept to ourselves, just concerned with our families and our children.
“Sept. 11 changed the whole thing,” he said, and hesitated before adding, worried it could be misconstrued, “but the change was in some ways positive.”
In the months and years after 9/11, in communities large and small, mosques opened their doors for Friday prayers and iftar dinners to break the Ramadan fast. Churches and synagogues deluged imams with speaking requests. Muslim, Jewish and Christian performers hit the clubs on comedy tours.
“There are so many interfaith councils and projects now, we can’t even keep track,” said Bettina Gray, chairwoman of the North American Interfaith Network. “From the Muslim side, there’s more incentive to work with the broader community, and there’s more receptiveness from the Christian and Jewish side.”
In Syracuse, like most other places, the road to interfaith understanding was full of bumps. When Ms. Wellmon tried finding nine Muslim women to join her, she said she had to “browbeat” some of them into it. As a white convert, Ms. Wellmon did not find it a stretch to have coffee with Mrs. Wiggins. But the other women in the mosque were immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and were not accustomed to speaking with outsiders about their religion.